A power struggle

“They’re running roughshod over local opposition,” he said. “I don’t like how the government is shoving this down our throat … Democracy is becoming a casualty in Ontario’s electricity development. Green energy is important but so is democracy. One shouldn’t trump the other.” – Green party leader Frank de Jong

Brian and Janice Scovill’s comfortable two-storey home sits in the heart of the farmland where one of Canada’s largest wind-power plants is under construction.

Most of the project’s 86 turbines are located within three kilometres of their property. One turbine is about 450 metres away from their back door, which is closer than it is to the house of the farmer on whose land the turbine is located.

Unlike the farmer, however, the Scovills receive no compensation.

The Scovills don’t mind living in the midst of the 125-metre-high machines, which are expected to be turned on at the end of June, when the $475-million project is completed.

They support the wind project and they see the economic benefits for the island and the environment, but they wish they’d been involved in the process in a more meaningful way.

“If you’re going to build it in my backyard, come and talk to me in a frank, open way,” Brian Scovill said. “I talked to [Canadian Hydro officials] at public meetings, but never did anyone from the company come and knock on my door. ”

With the provincial government ushering in a new green-energy era and pushing forward with its plans to reduce emissions by revamping the province’s electricity system, concern is growing that the Ontario government may soon pay even less attention to the opinions of people like the Scovills.

Premier Dalton McGuinty says when it comes to renewable energy projects, he’s not prepared to tolerate objections from residents simply because they don’t want something built close to their home.

Community concerns must prevail over health, safety and environmental considerations of individuals and the government has made it clear it plans to fast track the green-energy initiatives outlined in the Green Energy Act announced last month.

Because of the image of selfishness it has come to represent, the acronym NIMBY — Not In My Back Yard — has become a term with which no one wants to be associated but Frank de Jong, leader of the Green Party of Ontario, said he doesn’t believe in NIMBYism.

Instead, he sees the input from neighbours as an important part of the process when it comes to developments such as the wind-power project on Wolfe Island.

People who raise concerns shouldn’t be dismissed as NIMBYs, he said.

“People who live in an area care very deeply about that area and they should be consulted in the most democratic way,” de Jong said. “When you’re called a NIMBY because you’re proud of your community and you’re rooted in it, that’s not fair and it’s not right.”

de Jong’s party supports green energy but he believes the Liberals’ comments on NIMBYism are too “heavy-handed.” He sees them as an affront to the democratic process.

“They’re running roughshod over local opposition,” he said. “I don’t like how the government is shoving this down our throat … Democracy is becoming a casualty in Ontario’s electricity development. Green energy is important but so is democracy. One shouldn’t trump the other.”

Ontario’s environment minister, Kingston and the Islands MPP John Gerretsen, said the province needs to get on with the business of developing green energy projects and can’t allow those efforts to get bogged down by people who simply don’t like the look of wind turbines.

“There should be voice given to certain concerns, but I do not have any time for NIMBYism,” he said.

“When hydro first started 100 years ago or so, I’m sure there were a heck of a lot of people who didn’t like power lines coming down their streets with ugly poles and ugly lines, but the bottom line is that we all turn on our electricity at night and we all expect it to be there.”

Despite the government’s stance on NIMBYism, Gerretsen said the province must still address legitimate issues when they’re raised. He doesn’t consider the aesthetics of wind turbines a legitimate issue.

Issues such as noise, setbacks -the distance between turbines and buildings and roads -as well as things like odour from biomass facilities will be carefully considered over the next few months, he said, as the Ministry of the Environment develops the regulations that will become part of the new Green Energy Act.

“Our work is only just beginning,” Gerretsen said.

The ministry will hold consultation meetings across the province to give the public an opportunity to provide feedback on those new regulations.

“But as the premier has said, NIMBYism is something we’re just not going to listen to,” Gerretsen said.

“We believe in renewable energy and if you believe in renewable energy and you want to shut down the coal-fired energy plants, then yes, there are going to be more wind turbines that may be affecting some peoples’ views.

“It’s no different than when the first hydro lines were first put down our streets. We all received the benefit from it.”

A look back half a century reveals an event when several thousand citizens east of Kingston along the St Lawrence River paid a steep personal price for the common good.

Jane Craig was 15 year old when she was one of 6,500 people living in six villages and three hamlets west of Cornwall that were flooded to accommodate the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Her family lost their home and their business, a hotel, in Moulinette when the land was flooded on July 1, 1958.

Over the course of about four years before the flooding, roughly 500 homes were either moved or re-built. Those that could be moved, were, and those that weren’t structurally sound enough for the move had to be demolished and rebuilt.

Craig and her family were relocated to Long Sault, where they re-built their home and their business. Hydro paid her family about $50,000 to move but three years later, her father died from a heart condition that her mother blamed on the stress of the move.

“My mother died a bitter woman,” Craig said.

Many people mourned the loss of their properties and hometowns. It affected people deeply, Craig said.

Fifty years later, the people who were resettled are still called the “survivors.”

“We endured it. We went through it,” Craig said. “There was a lot of heartache for a lot of people.”

Perspectives have changed over the past five decades. Most people today view it as having been a necessary change, said Craig, who is now president of the Lost Villages Historical Society, which chronicles the history of the resettlement.

Despite the disruption to her family that the construction caused, she has accepted it.

“I love where I live,” she said. “We went to a new village that had a new arena, new schools, new churches, new streets, new sidewalks. It had everything.”

The only thing that upsets Craig is that she can’t take her children and grandchildren back to her hometown, to show them her childhood home or where she played hockey.

“It’s gone. It’s all underwater,” she said. Still, she doesn’t look back on what her family lost because of the construction of the seaway. Instead, she recognizes the necessity of the project. She sees the construction of wind farms as no different.

“People say, ‘It’s going to devalue my home property’ and it’s going to do this and that. Well, we lost everything. Period,” she said, “but we were well compensated.”

There was no real protest when the seaway was built. The term NIMBY was unknown.

“Back then, when the government said, ‘Jump,’ you jumped,” Craig said.

Ultimately, Craig feels that the role of the public should be limited to raising concerns about serious impacts such as health, safety and environment.

“I know it’s going to be disruptive, but things have to change and they’re going to change,” she said. “We couldn’t have stopped the St. Lawrence Seaway and nor should we have. Our outcome was good and I hope theirs is, too.”

The premier’s recent comments about NIMBYism have raised the ire of at least one Wolfe Island politician.

Denis Doyle, councillor for the Township of Frontenac Islands, said McGuinty is simply “covering up for past mistakes.”

“The province left us high and dry,” he said. “When the project on Wolfe Island started, it was like it was the first place in the world ever to do this.”

Doyle, who was elected two years into the planning process for the wind farm, decries the lack of support he says Wolfe Island received from the provincial government as the small, rural municipality manoeuvred its way through complicated issues associated with the turbines.

He believes that the province’s relatively recent readiness to develop and include standardized regulations in the proposed Green Energy Act is the result of how some planning decisions on Wolfe Island drew public opposition and caused delays for the project.

The issue of setbacks ended up going to the Ontario Municipal Board in the summer of 2007.

“The province could have fixed the setback distances long ago,” Doyle said. “To a large extent, the province let us be the guinea pigs. We were left on our own to figure it out.”

Small municipalities like the Township of Frontenac Islands don’t have the expertise or the money to hire consultants, he said, to determine the best way to proceed with such contentious and complex issues as setbacks, noise limits and other environmental concerns.

The new Green Energy Act will establish those standards and make it easier for other municipalities, Doyle said.

“The province is going in the right direction, but it’s just too bad for Wolfe Island,” he said. “I’m pleased that other communities won’t have to go through what Wolfe Island went through.”

Sometimes, Green party leader de Jong said, public response that often gets labelled as NIMBYism can result in a more sustainable, more community-accepted project.

Some European researchers have agreed. At a conference of geographers in the mid-1990s, researchers for the International Geographical Union found that NIMBYism can be progressive. It can result in discussions that can prevent poor planning decisions and protect the broader interests of the community. The researchers found after studying instances of NIMBYism in Spain and Australia that three out of four cases had been a positive, democratic force.

de Jong would like to see a new formula for compensation for landowners and communities who host alternative-energy projects.

“The host landowner [for a turbine] gets in the neighbourhood of $7,000, $8,000, $9,000 a year, but the neighbours don’t get anything,” he said. “The revenue from wind turbines should be shared more equitably among the neighbours and the community. That probably would help a lot.”

de Jong said the Green Party would like wind farm installations like the one on Wolfe Island to be community-owned.

“If it was owned locally, then you would have a lot more buy-in because the benefit and control would remain local,” he said.

The Wolfe Island project is principally owned by Calgary-based Canadian Hydro Developers Inc. The amenities agreement between Canadian Hydro and the township gives the municipality $7,500 per turbine and 1.25 per cent of the company’s gross annual revenue rate for the first 20 years. Those rates increase slightly to $14,500.00 per turbine and three per cent of Canadian Hydro’s gross annual revenue in years 31 to 40 of the agreement.

Geoff Carnegie, Canadian Hydro’s development manager, said there was about a six-year history of public involvement with the Wolfe Island project, including public meetings, landowners meetings and meetings with the municipal council. The public remains involved through a community liaison group, he said.

“The role of the public has been long and storied on this particular project,” Carnegie said. “All residents on Wolfe Island, participating and non-participating, [were] sent notices for public meetings, notices about our web site being set up, e-mails, phone numbers and fax numbers. We’re definitely available.”

Still, de Jong said, the problem with many alternative-energy projects today in Ontario is that they’re being “forced on communities … and are owned by far-away interests.

“The provincial government is being a bully… they’re giving wind power and green electricity a bad name by forcing it upon people as if it’s a bitter pill we have to swallow,” he said.

“It’s not. Green electricity is the most wonderful thing if it’s done properly with the consent of the community. What we need is informed consent and for the benefits of green electricity to be spread among the community ”

Stefan Gsanger, secretary general of the World Wind Energy Association, is based in Bonn, Germany. He said Germany — the world leader in wind energy -has learned that the community- based approach is the most effective way to get people on board with individual projects.

“Local people who are living close to wind farms are, in quite a few cases, also shareholders of it and that, of course, makes it much more likely that people will say they like the wind turbine,” he said.

“It’s important that the majority supports it and I believe it’s important that the majority understands that it’s for their benefit, and the best benefit is that people can earn money from it.”

In a case where an investor is coming in from outside the community, he recommends that the company offer shares to the local people as a way of getting them to support the project.

“There is clear empirical evidence that shows the more community power you have, the more citizen ownership you have, the less NIMBY attitudes you have.”

*

All the Scovills ever wanted was to be included in the planning process because their property was due to be surrounded by turbines. They did write letters to Canadian Hydro, but have never been satisfied with the company’s response.

Brian Scovill believes Canadian Hydro didn’t made any effort to talk to him because it feared a hassle from a landowner who wasn’t going to get an option.

“They didn’t want any more complications,” he said.

Instead, the Scovills wound up being surrounded by turbines on land that has been optioned by their neighbours.

They say it’s not just about how the view from their front veranda has changed -you can now count 24 turbines from their front veranda in what were once farmers’ fields. Brian Scovill is concerned about the noise the turbines are going to make once they’re moving and the flickering light that may reflect off the blades as the sun sets behind them.

“It’s the intimidation and the size [of the turbines] with the fact that we’re surrounded,” he said. “With the size and the proximity, there’s a sense that they’re encroaching on us.”

He would like to see governments and Canadian Hydro recognize how close their home is to the turbines and offer them some kind of compensation.

“I’m not talking about financial, necessarily,” Scovill said. “It might be a paved road or maybe a tax break. They’re putting millions into this. Surely they could even put up some trees”

He pointed out that it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask in connection with a project that’s going to cost nearly half a billion dollars.

“We never wanted to stop or hold up the project,” he said. “We just wanted to be involved somehow.”

By Jennifer Pritchett

The Kingston Whig-Standard

14 March 2009

One thought on “A power struggle

  1. From what my mom told me people were glad to get hydro and give up the coal oil lamps. The lines didn’t cause health problems, although the high voltage lines have been proven to do that. The Seaway residents were compensated and new communities were built.

    Today’s windmill story is totally different. People largely were receptive to the large turbines and only afterward found that it was making them sick. They are being left to pick up the pieces being called NIMBYs and liars and often selling there homes and leaving.

    The industry and government lie to us and say there are no health problems. They were warned not to put them so close and fought it out at the OMB to make sure they could put them so close. People who did express concerns at those public meetings concerning setbacks were told not to worry.

    How far will we get at these public consultations? I’ve gone before government committees to make it clear to them that the coal plants can be cleaned up as the rest of the world is doing. They will tell you what a good job you did and then ignore you and continue on being deceived and continuing to deceive.

    But is it worth trying? Yes it is. Others are listening and may be in power one day. I don’t have any hope for the McGuinty government. We need to vote for somebody else.

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